A political struggle in a European nation of less than three million, largely ignored by other socialists in Europe, has nevertheless come to the fore in the capitalist media repeatedly since the late 1960s. This has been largely as a result of the the Basque people’s struggle for socialism and independence from the Spanish and French states, a struggle led for decades by Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, the marxist armed organisation better known by its acronym, ETA. The organisation reawakened Basque national consciousness, has worked with others for the restoration of Euskara, the Basque language, organised Basque workers and faced the repression of the General Franco dictatorship in the Spanish state. Famously, in 1973 it assassinated the Prime Minister of the state, Admiral Carrero Blanco, Franco’s right-hand man, which hastened the fragmentation of the dictatorship and its passage to partial democracy.
ETA has been on official truce since January 2011 (and effectively for months earlier) and says it has permanently eschewed armed struggle. The war seems over but French and Spanish state repression continues. Recently ETA suspects were arrested in France and allegations of torture of detainees persist in the southern country, i.e. that under Spanish rule. Around 700 political prisoners are dispersed through jails across the territories of both states. In February 2012, speaking in Dublin, a representative of Herrira, the new organisation created to agitate for the return home of Basque political prisoners and for improvement in their conditions, painted a dark picture of the prisoners’ conditions. They are kept in solitary confinement far more than the average prisoner, their sentences have been increased to what are in reality life sentences and some have contracted tuberculosis, a disease nearly eradicated in Europe. Many have developed mental illnesses and some have committed suicide; in addition many are seriously or even terminally ill with physical ailments.
On the purely political front, many political parties, platforms and youth organisations of the Abertzale (i.e. “patriotic” or “pro-independence”) Left movement have been banned. This has prevented the movement from presenting itself at elections, despite many attempts to do so. The conservative PNV (Basque National Party) may have initially welcomed the removal of their socialist Basque rivals but there were unforseen consequences for them: after the ‘autonomous’ regional government elections in 2009, the right-wing Partido Popular and the social-democratic Partido Socialista Obrero de Espana, the Basque versions of the main Spanish parties, combined to outvote the PNV by a majority of one, to give the PP the Presidency and control of the Basque Autonomous Region, entailing among other things control of the ETB (Basque television station). Had the Abertzale Left been permitted to participate in the elections, their elected representatives would have united with the PNV to outvote the pro-Spanish parties.
The most recently-banned political platform of the Abertzale Left was Sortu – despite its constitution rejecting violence “including that of ETA” and undertaking to expel from the party any member who advocated it. The Spanish National Court decided what it always does, that this is just ETA in another form. To which some constitutional democrats retort: “If you don’t allow them to present themselves as a political party for election, what options are you allowing them except the armed one?” Spanish politicians in the past said that ETA should cease armed struggle but when it was on ceasefire, then said that it must give up armed struggle permanently. Now that it appears to have done so, they say it must give up its weapons and disband. The overtures of the Abertzale Left are all unilateral, without corresponding moves by the Spanish state.
When the National Court barred Sortu from participating in the elections for regional government and for local authorities, the Abertzale Left presented themselves as individuals in Bildu, in coalition with the social-democratic pro-independence parties of Eusko Alkartasuna and Alternatiba. Yet again the coalition was banned by the Supreme Court but that ban was overturned in May 2011 on appeal by the Constitutional Court (which however has not overturned the ban on Sortu). The election results were a huge success for the new coalition and, with more time to prepare and to campaign, would probably have been even better. In three of the southern provinces, the new party received 25% of the vote, second only to the Basque Nationalist Party (29%) and even in Nafarroa got 11%. The coalition now runs many local authorities as well as the large one of Donosti/ San Sebastian.
In November last year, a general election was held across the Spanish state and the Abertzale Left entered into yet another but wider coalition, which included another social-democratic party, Aralar. The new coalition, Amaiur, won seven seats to the Spanish parliament, the Cortes, and three to the Senate.
Coalitions and new policies bring tensions within the Abertzale Left movement.
What many people outside the Basque Country want to know is where it is heading for now? Is their peace process going to succeed with the Spanish state? Is the process sufficiently supported within the Abertzale Left organisation and their wider movement? Initial conversations with people in the organisation, especially those close to the leadership of a number of its organs, elicit the response that all is well and that great political progress is being made. But what of their repeated reliance on the examples of the Irish and South African peace processes? The first is increasingly seen as failed with regard to unification and independence, with the second as little more than the admission to the white capitalist club of a handful of black capitalists and their middle-class support.
“These are examples to convince the Spanish state and the international community,” is the standard response. “The Basque Country is not Ireland,” they emphasise. “Our movement is large and wide and has not only a political expression but a wide social and cultural one too.”
But when one probes a little deeper and enquires more widely, one finds quite different responses. These range from unease, through suspicion to a total rejection of the process and the direction of the organisation, its statements and even alliances. Even the campaign to free Arnaldo Otegi, a jailed leading member of the Abertzale Left and a prime mover of the new process, ran into internal opposition. “Why a campaign for him? Why set him apart from all the other prisoners?” was the response of many. “We have never elevated one leader in our movement, never had the cult of personality.”
The issue of Basque political prisoners dispersed across the Spanish and French states and is a major one, not just for the Abertzale Left movement but for the whole of Basque society. The pro-Spanish Basque police, the Ertzaintza (nicknamed “Zipayos” or “Sepoys”), regularly harasses ceremonies welcoming (ongi etorri) home released prisoners and removes photos of prisoners from bars and other public places. According to the Spanish National Court, such displays are “glorification of terrorism” and numbers of Abertzale Left people are awaiting trial on that charge.
Despite that, small banners calling for the prisoners to come home can be seen hanging from bars and balconies here and there throughout the country, weekly vigils are held for the prisoners and the annual solidarity demonstration in January is huge. This year’s, in Bilbao, at 110,000, is believed to have been the largest demonstration ever in the Basque Country.
Despite there being no sign of such an overture yet, could the release of the prisoners be a sufficient prize to convince the doubters in the movement to support the Process? “Perhaps, perhaps not,” is the response of some. “Not all the prisoners were part of the decision to issue a statement supporting the Process; some of the prisoners are saying that they do not want to come out if it is for any thing less than an independent and socialist Basque Country. They say: ‘It was not for this that we risked life and liberty and that so many of our comrades died.’”
How the internal opposition will manifest itself and how successful they will be remains to be seen. Most activists shy away from the prospect of a split in the movement, being aware of those that occurred in 1974 and 1982. However, it also true that the internal struggles that led to those splits clarified a number of key ideological issues at the time and that the movement, particularly ETA (its dominant expression in those years), emerged stronger as a result and thereafter grew quickly.
It is difficult at this moment to assess the prospects of those who wish to change the current direction of the movement. The small group of marxist-leninists Kimetz Kolektiboa, has chosen to step outside the Abertzale Left and say others should do the same, joining to form a Basque communist party. “The movement for independence and especially for socialism must be led by the working class”, they say, “and that is impossible without the class having its own party.”
But most critics have chosen to remain within the Abertzale Left movement, at least for the moment, agitating for the changes they wish to see. “It is very cold outside the wide organisation”, said one of these recently. The formation of a different political party within the Abertzale Left is not permitted; however a multiplicity of groups, collectives and associations abound, each with their own web pages and often their own newspapers, such as EHK, another group of marxist-leninists but working within the movement.
It is not from the socialist perspective alone that the current direction and Abertzale Left leadership faces internal criticism; some, including ex-prisoners, whose main objective is an independent Basque Country, fear that all that can be achieved with the current direction is some other type of regional autonomy in which they will be permitted to participate politically, whereas their wish is for total independence and unification of their nation.
A key issue, of course, is which way the youth will go. It was Abertzale Left youth who founded the political group ETA back at the end of the 1960s, inspired by the Cuban revolution and the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria. Then the patriotic youth from EGI, a group within the Basque Nationalist Party, joined ETA in mass to swell its ranks. It was mainly the youth who painted the slogans, put up the posters and, until very recently, fought the Ertzaintza police in kale borroka (“street fighting”) when the Spanish National Court banned demonstrations.
The youth are not a homogenous group but they tend towards a more radical outlook and often occupy empty buildings to set up their own social centres (gastetxeak). However, many of their organisations have been banned and their leading activists arrested, tortured and imprisoned. They are palpably uneasy. In 2009, after Irish Republican “dissidents” had killed two British soldiers and a PSNI officer, Batasuna (political party of the Abertzale Left, banned in the Spanish state but not in the French) issued a statement of fulsome praise for the Provisionals’ leadership and, implicitly, for the peace process. Two Basque youth published a critical letter in response. Although they subsequently remained silent, at least in print, it is clear that they are representative of a substantial sector. “One cannot, even if one disagrees with their actions or the timing, call Republicans who kill colonial police and imperialist troops ‘traitors’” was said by many Basque youth in conversation (a reference to Martin McGuinness’ condemnation at the time, just prior to the Batasuna statement of support).
Basque Trade unions lead the way
Another “augmentation of forces” which preceded the recent political alliances of the Abertzale Left was that of their trade union LAB with the other main Basque trade union, ELA (the latter originally formed by the Catholic conservative Basque Nationalist Party, as a counter to “foreign” and radical trade union influences). Both unions together have the majority membership in the southern Basque Country, outnumbering the Basque membership of the Spanish-unionist trade unions of Comisones Obreras and the UGT. The Basque unions LAB and ELA, along with smaller Basque trade unions, have held a number of one-day general strikes against the extension of the pensionable age and of cuts in services.
The political victories of Bildu in local and regional government have strained the alliance of LAB and ELA, leaving some in the latter union feeling left out as their partner LAB supports the new political alliances and their management of local government. Nevertheless, both unions announced a one-day general strike in the Basque Country, set for March 9th, specifically against the recent labour “reforms” of the new Partido Popular government, enacted by decree without passing through the Spanish Parliament. The pro-Gallician independence trade union confederation of the INTG chose that day for a general strike in their own nation. That initiative then snowballed and became a strike day for the whole Spanish state, which big collaborationist trade unions Comisiones and UGT found themselves forced to support.
The only certain thing in the Basque Country at the moment is that nothing is certain in the near future, which means that there are interesting times ahead.
Note: Euskal Herria (The Basque Country) consists of seven provinces, three in Iparralde (“the Northern country”) on the French side of the border and four on the Spanish side (Hegoalde -- “the Southern country”). Many Europeans will be familiar with tourist destinations in Euskal Herria like the port of Biarritz, Bilbao, San Sebastian/ Donostia and Pamplona (where some people like to risk their lives during the festival of San Fermín, running from bulls in the street). Most of the Camino de Santiago runs through their country.
The total population is less than three million, the greater part of which is in the southern part of the country. Some areas are heavily industrialised while others are agricultural – some of the Rioja wine region is in their country and they have an active fishing industry. The native language is Euskara (Basque Language), one of the non-Indo-European original languages of Europe, which was banned under the Franco dictatorship (1936- 1975), and its number of speakers grows steadily.
The (post-Franco) Constitution of 1978 was agreed by a majority in the Spanish state but not in the Basque Country. It is a progressive document in terms of civil rights but it has been negated by the police actions, laws and decrees of the Spanish state with regard to the Basques (and to a lesser degree, of the Catalans and Gallicians). The regional autonomy granted by the Consitution to the Navarra province, as well as to the regional Euskadi government of the three Basque provinces of Bizkaya, Guipuzkoa and Alaba, have failed to satisfy either the socialist aspirations of the Abertzale Left or the Basque wish for national independence.
The Abertzale Left is a very wide movement composed of many smaller and larger groups, including: Batasuna (banned in Spain but not in France); GARA (Basque bilingual daily newspaper); Etxerat (association of prisoners’ relatives and friends); LAB (socialist trade union representing about 15% of southern Basque workers); the Herriko Tabernak (“People’s Taverns”); ETA. It also contains feminist and environmental organisations. Most revolutionary and progressive activists of diverse ideologies work either in it or alongside it and the Abertzale Left’s own activists work within a myriad of cultural and social organisations and movements.
Caption: Prisoner solidarity demonstration